October comes with certainties: leaves turn crisp, sweaters emerge from hibernation, and Major League Baseball winds down then ramps up into a divisions-clearing donnybrook that culminates in an emotional maelstrom called the World Series.
It’s too early to determine who may survive the National and American league playoffs — six teams and two weeks remain at this writing — but Scott McCaughey has a few picks.
“I was pulling for the Oakland A’s, but that didn’t last too long,” he said with a laugh in a telephone interview last week. (The A’s were eliminated in a 5-1 Oct. 2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.) “So, for now, I guess the Astros would be my next choice. My wife’s from Houston, so I’ll support them for sure. For the National League, probably the Braves. I’m not really a fan of the Nationals. Definitely not a fan of the Dodgers.”
If you grew up in this region with an interest in its clamor, Scott McCaughey as a figure looms large. The multi-instrumentalist co-founded Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows in the early 1980s; the rapid musical growth on their first three albums — “The Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest” (1984), “Topsy Turvy” (1985) and “The Men Who Loved Music” (1987) — signaled an evolution that has yet to abate creatively.
McCaughey has since recorded and toured with R.E.M., launching multiple long-term collaborations with its guitarist, Peter Buck, and other prominent musicians. Herewith, a sampling: The Minus 5, a flexible lineup that's included members of Wilco, The Decemberists and The Posies; Tuatara, populated by members of Luna, The Chills and Screaming Trees; and Filthy Friends, featuring Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. Last year, McCaughey contributed to and performed with Arthur Buck, Buck’s partnership with the enigmatic Joseph Arthur. McCaughey and Buck also comprise half of The No Ones with Norwegian musicians Frode Stromstad and Arne Kjelsrud Marthiesen.
Music isn’t McCaughey’s sole passion, of course. You may have noticed he’s into baseball too. And about 12 years ago, events conspired in New York City to combine those very things.
The night before R.E.M. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2007, McCaughey and Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate (“The Days of Wine and Roses,” one of the ’80s’ best records) discussed the idea of an album devoted to the sport, as both were lifelong die-hards with facts and stats at their disposal and almost 150 years of history as their canvas.
“We weren’t even thinking of it being a band at the time,” McCaughey recalled. “It was more like, ‘Let’s write a bunch of baseball songs and do a record.’ Because we’d talked about it separately. We’d both had this fantasy of doing an album about baseball. But when you have somebody else helping you, joining in, that made it more likely to happen.”
It also helps to have friends of extraordinary talent. Buck joined, as did Wynn’s wife, ex-Zuzu’s Petals drummer Linda Pitmon. (Arriving later: Buck’s R.E.M. bandmate, Mike Mills.) They called themselves the Baseball Project, and their 2008 debut, “Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails,” offered 13 tracks of pop-hook sublimity that defied mere novelty, with a knowledge of the game that went deeper than a pocket in an outfielder’s glove.
Baseball songs have been part of our culture since the first heart fluttered at the crack of a bat. Sportswriter/humorist Ring Lardner labored over a rhyme for “Nap Lajoie” (“Gee! It’s a Wonderful Game,” 1911) and once serenaded the glowering Chicago White Sox with a barbed parody of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” outright accusing them of throwing the 1919 World Series as they were throwing it. When “Joltin’” Joe DiMaggio went on a 56-game hitting streak in 1941, he got his own dance number. Bob Dylan sang of Catfish Hunter. John Fogerty went metaphorically autobiographical on “Centerfield.” A certain Mets Hall of Famer popped up in Belle and Sebastian’s “Piazza, New York Catcher.” As McCaughey explained, they’re truly part of the American folk tradition, with colorful characters and tales of their feats.
Baseball Project, on the other hand, has consistently covered the sport over three albums, often with a fan’s skepticism, compassion and disappointment. Although the band does have material about Babe Ruth, Ted (f---ing) Williams, Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Cy Young, those songs qualify more as human studies than whitewashing idolatry. Lenny Dykstra (“From Nails to Thumbtacks”) and Curt Flood (“Gratitude (for Curt Flood)”) get their due. Alex Rodriguez gets ripped apart (“13”). Lesser-known figures like Larry Yount (that's Robin's older brother) and Hall of Famer “Big Ed” Delahanty receive their three-minute moment in the sun.
“We’re not a strictly celebratory exploration of baseball,” McCaughey said, “although obviously the whole Baseball Project comes out of our intensive love for it. It’s not just about celebrating the positive aspects of the game; it’s about the tragedies as well as the great moments.”
McCaughey’s own life has seen its share of both. In November 2017, he suffered a stroke in San Francisco while on tour with Yep Roc labelmate Alejandro Escovedo. Although, to his relief, he still instinctively knew how to play guitar, the power of speech had left him, along with every word, every lyric, from a long, prolific career. With the help of his friends, he resolved to get them back. Peter Buck filled an iPod with Beatles albums for him. McCaughey studied YouTube videos. He also, as is his wont, began writing songs during three weeks in intensive care. When he returned home to Portland, he recorded a new Minus 5 album about the experience, with assistance from Buck, Pitmon, Wynn, Jeff Tweedy and others. Released in April 2019, “Stroke Manor” documents a man struggling past disorientation to find himself again.
“I’m pretty good,” McCaughey said of his recovery. “It’s a constant process, a tough process, but I can’t complain, because I am functional. It could have gone the other way. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to play a show. Within five months, I was actually playing in front of people, which was emotional and tough. It’s still weird and tough, but I feel lucky that I can still get up there and have fun.”
Meanwhile, he continues to release music at his usual prodigious pace, including work he’d recorded prior to his stroke. Filthy Friends’ second album, “Emerald Valley,” came out in May. The No Ones are preparing a record for spring. Arthur Buck is coming back next year, as are the Young Fresh Fellows, with their first release since 2012’s “Tiempo de Lujo.” McCaughey’s played with the Fellows recently, supporting NRBQ on a pair of Pacific Northwest dates this month.
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Then there’s the matter of a new Baseball Project. The last disc, “3rd,” is now 5 years old. It’s time, McCaughey said. The sport has so much left to give, so many mysteries left to plumb.
“I got into it as a kid,” McCaughey said of his lifelong affection. “I followed football, as well, and other sports, to a lesser degree. But baseball’s always been my favorite. It’s always been the most fun to play and watch. Its intricacies are so beautiful: the strategies and the setting. It’s like a perfectly devised game. As much as you can say baseball has changed, it really hasn’t changed at all in the last 100 years. It was such a conceptually perfect thing that it’s managed to stay the same. I love it.”
McCaughey and Buck explore the Baseball Project songbook at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, in the Starker Auditorium at the Majestic Theatre, 115 SW Second St., Corvallis. Their appearance is part of the American Strings Series, presented by Oregon State University and the theater. (See the related box for details.)
In 2015, you told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Ben Crandell that the Baseball Project inspired a “whole new way of writing songs.” Could you elaborate?
It is different for me, because mostly I’m writing either from personal experience or from whatever I make up, a fantasy world, or a combination of the two. With baseball, it’s kind of like having an assignment, in a weird way, where you’re writing to order.
It was wide open for us, because we could write about anything. Steve (Wynn) and I said right off the bat that our songs about baseball don’t have to be factual. They don’t have to be literal. They could be just as wild and crazy and imaginative as our normal songs. But the fact is that we did have a lot of historical information to pull from: “I want to write a song about Curt Flood.” And then it becomes a bit like an assignment: how to approach it and where to go.
It’s hard to explain. We talk about songs we’re writing for baseball and I say, “Well, I was thinking about writing a song about Rube Waddell.” Steve’ll say, “Cool. What’s the angle?” That’s the way Steve thinks, which was really enlightening to me, because I don’t think in terms like that. I just start writing and let it go wherever it goes. It’s been a learning experience for me to write this way. But still, it’s fun. It can be as funny or as serious as we want. We don’t narrow ourselves down too much.
My favorite Baseball Project track is “Buckner’s Bolero,” largely because I remember watching it happen as a kid; you felt immediately as if you’d witnessed history. And the song is, like, this complex list of events that had they not occurred we wouldn’t have had those freakish few seconds in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. (Bill Buckner, then the Boston Red Sox’s first baseman, missed a grounder blipped by the New York Mets’ Mookie Wilson, which brought teammate Ray Knight home for a tie-breaking run and forced the Series to a seventh game. The Mets then took the championship, robbing Boston of its first title in 68 years.) Bill passed away in May. How should he be remembered?
It was really sad, but it wasn’t as bittersweet as it would have been had he died, say, 15 years ago. But since Boston got the monkey off their back and won (the Sox claimed the championship in 2004, their first since 1918, and have since taken three more), they re-embraced Buckner. People in Boston who had probably cursed his name for 30 years were willing to take him back. They realized it was a human thing, that it wasn’t his fault. You can blame it on the play, but as I explained in the song, that’s not the whole story. That’s just one part of it.
It was nice to see him re-embraced by the Red Sox fans. He was cheered when he came back to Fenway. I was glad that he got to live long enough to see that and feel his career wasn’t all about that one play. That was another point in the song, too: that he’d had a solid — not Hall of Fame, but really great — career, and that he should be remembered for that.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of The Young Fresh Fellows’ debut, “The Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest.” How do you look back on that album now?
I listened to it recently because we’ve been playing a fair amount of Fellows shows this year: 10 shows, which is a lot for us. Sometimes — since the stroke, especially — I have to relearn songs and get back to knowing the music.
Oddly, the songs from that record and the older Fellows songs are the first ones that started coming back to me. They’re so deeply ingrained in me that they were able to find a way through however my brain worked. They’re such a part of me that they managed to come back.
It’s such a one-of-a-kind record; there’s nothing else like it. We sound like we’re little kids who don’t know how to make a record, and I think that’s its charm. When you hear the opening minutes of the second album (“Topsy Turvy,” 1985), you can tell we’re a completely different band. It’s full-bodied rock music. When we made “Fabs Sounds,” I think we thought we sounded like The Who. (laughs) We sound like this tiny little band. It’s so innocent, in a way. And the songs stand up. They’re great, and we still play a lot of them.